Jay-Z Takes on the Super Bowl

A few years ago, the National Football League approached Jay-Z about performing at the Super Bowl halftime show. To perform “Run This Town,” he was asked if he would bring Rihanna and Kanye West, who appear on the track, along with him.

“Of course I would have,” Jay-Z said, “but I said, ‘No, you get me.’ That is not how you go about it, telling someone that they’re going to do the halftime show contingent on who they bring. I said forget it. It was a principle thing.”

Then, last year, the Super Bowl was in Atlanta, a global center of hip-hop — and the N.F.L. booked the pop rock band Maroon 5 as the headliner.

It certainly looked like the N.F.L. needed help. Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots and the powerful chairman of the N.F. L.’s media committee, reached out to Jay-Z to discuss.

Roc Nation’s role as a record label and management company for clients who mostly have grown up poor and disadvantaged, and its growing focus on real-time response to criminal justice reform and abuses, has led to this moment with the N.F.L., he said.

Now is the time, he said, for the conversation needs to move beyond only Mr. Kaepernick. “No one is saying he hasn’t been done wrong,” Jay-Z said. “He was done wrong. I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now — because people are still dying?’”

Roc Nation has not said how much money it stands to make from the deal. “We didn’t say, ‘Let’s go make some money off the N.F.L.,’” Jay-Z said.

And Jay-Z may be the frontman of the N.F.L. deal, but it’s a companywide effort. Inside Roc Nation, the executives say the higher purpose is to get inside the establishment to bring representation of color and try to foster a nationwide cultural dialogue.

“I understand that some say, ‘Why do you want to sit at that table?’” said Tyran Smith, known as TyTy, a founder of the company and its president of A&R. “I’m a curious person. They’re not going to poison my food, I hope. I’m going to learn something and I’m going to share it.”

Juan Perez, the president of Roc Nation Sports, the company’s athletic management division, said: “Somebody has to kick in the door and get shot first. We’re that company. We’re not afraid. We’ve been doing it our whole lives.”

The company believes its mission in representing artists and athletes is to make money change hands with a purpose. Roc Nation sees this as a social justice function.

“Focusing on social justice is the nature of how we grew up,” Jay-Z said. “The people we sign — 75 percent of them, at least — grew up in poverty. When one of us gets signed, it doesn’t end our connection to the ’hood or the streets. Our lives are still there, our cousin still needs a lawyer, our mother still can’t make the rent. This is real life.”

He cites Meek Mill, a Roc Nation management client, who was arrested in Philadelphia in 2007, when he was 19 on gun and drug charges. “Meek’s got eight guys who could pull him back,” Jay-Z said. “I said, ‘Meek, you are going to go back with them, or you need to bring them with you.’ So he reaches a hand back and pulls them with him. That’s social justice: It’s how we help a person help their community and help themselves.”

Meek Mill’s 2017 appearance before a judge about a probation violation, dating back to those 2007 charges, helped fuel Roc Nation’s increased focus on advocacy.

When the judge ordered the rapper to return to prison for two to four years for the probation violation, Ms. Perez, Jay-Z and Michael Rubin, the founder of the sports merchandise company Fanatics and a close friend of Meek Mill, engineered a two-year effort in which they spent $7 million to fight for his release.

The experience galvanized Mr. Rubin. He raised more than $60 million to create the Reform Alliance, with Jay-Z, Mr. Kraft, Meek Mill and others. It works to overhaul the probation system. Roc Nation administers the organization through its philanthropy division.

What Jay-Z saw was rich white men like Mr. Rubin and Mr. Kraft working to fix a broken system after seeing injustice up close. It made him think more about what Roc Nation could do.

And because athletes mixed with musicians and social chitchat turned to money talk, with athletes routinely asking Jay-Z for advice on contract deals and investments, he looked to another old friend, Mr. Perez, who is also Ms. Perez’s husband, and had him start a management division for athletes.

Roc Sports opened in 2013 and now represents athletes including the N.B.A. player Kyrie Irving, the N.F.L. player Leonard Fournette and the W.N.B.A. player Skylar Diggins-Smith. (Kim Miale, the head of Roc Sports’s football division, said that she and her peers have no involvement in the Roc Nation N.F.L. deal.)

Mr. Perez says the pitch is an explanation to young athletes, many of whom were raised in or near poverty, that Roc Nation is evidence of what can be achieved through hard work but also through shrewd choices.

“My job is to give them a foundation and an understanding of how to stay rich and how not to make the same mistakes we probably made when we were young, drinking champagne and all the car stuff,” Mr. Perez said. “We’re going to try our best to make sure you grow as a man. This is a lifestyle. This is a brotherhood. This is a culture.”

That was the draw for Andrew Thomas, an offensive tackle at University of Georgia who declared he will enter the N.F.L. draft this year, represented by Roc Sports. “I’m able to talk to the O.G.s of the company,” Mr. Thomas said. “They teach soldiers how they become kings.”

“At the core, we have one of the greatest artists of all times who is also a marketing genius. Roc Nation is rooted in an authentic artist space: driving rights for the artists, teaching entertainers to be entrepreneurs,” said Michael Rapino, the chief executive of Live Nation. “We can all talk the talk, but Jay-Z can walk the walk.”

And while that may be true, the glue that holds the whole company together is Ms. Perez. She has a massive office on the ninth floor of Roc Nation’s office in New York, where she is the first to arrive and the last to leave as she troubleshoots for artists, negotiates shoe deals for athletes and tells basically everyone in the extended orbit what’s what.

“You don’t want to see her mad,” one employee told me; I believed it.

With all that built, there was an opportunity to make change. Jay-Z wanted an entire division within the company to be dedicated to it.

In January, with Ms. Perez working behind the scenes, Jay-Z and Yo Gotti filed a lawsuit against Mississippi prison officials. Part of Yo Gotti’s job was to keep it in the media and social media spotlight as he made his rounds to promote his new album.

On Jan. 27, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, called for the closure of Unit 29, where many of the deaths have occurred.

This work makes Roc Nation hope its efforts with the N.F.L. may defy the skeptics and help further both Jay-Z’s and Mr. Kaepernick’s missions. “We are two adult men who disagree on the tactic but are marching for the same cause,” Jay-Z said.

For the family members of the young black men killed by police whose stories the N.F.L. and Roc Nation are promoting, the conversation transcends celebrities, football players and social media spats.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand that we just don’t want any more members to this club,” said Michelle Kenney. Her son, Antwon Rose II, was 17 when he was shot and killed by a police officer in East Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2018. The officer was tried on homicide charges and acquitted.

A video about Antwon’s life and death was released in December. “If there is anything we can do to prevent membership from going up by one person,” Ms. Kenney said, “we’re out here and we’re willing to do it.”

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